The Kennedy Center: A Fresh Look for Its 50th Anniversary 


Celebrating its 50th anniversary this September, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts deserves a fresh look.

As the nation’s preeminent “national cultural center,” it has served for 50 years as a unique global institution. No other arts enterprise has done as much to showcase, preserve, celebrate and educate the public about the most splendid and varied features of American arts and culture. And, no other has done so much to spotlight and connect international artists, creators and cultural leaders from around the world. At the heart of its mission, the Center has also served for half a century as the only “living monument” to JFK — the nation’s 35th president — allowed in the nation’s capital.

Many view the Kennedy Center as a more traditional — albeit monumental — venue for the performing arts in Washington, D.C. Its impressive Parthenon-inspired complex of theaters and performance spaces at 2700 F St. NW always provides a grand venue from which to take in a concert, ballet, opera, or play. Few of D.C.’s monuments are as iconic as the Kennedy Center’s marble Formalist/Modern design (with a little Frank Lloyd Wright thrown in) perched along the Potomac within acres of parkland just downstream from the shores of Georgetown and the Watergate.

However, the Center’s wide-ranging approaches to its core missions have evolved with the times, and its facilities, capabilities and influence in the new media age continue to expand far beyond what its founders originally envisaged.

Today, the leaders of the Kennedy Center embrace the inspiration of the Kennedy legacy much more than one might imagine a half century since its launch. And that legacy continues to drive the institution’s mission to celebrate American arts and culture as directly as possible with the American people and with audiences around the world.

The origins of the founding of the Kennedy Center go back to the height of the U.S.-Soviet Cold War rivalry following the Second World War, a war in which young U.S. Navy Lt.(j.g.) Jack Kennedy proved extraordinarily courageous in the Pacific. In 1958 — the year after Sputnik — President Eisenhower signed a bill to establish a “National Cultural Center” in the nation’s capital. Soviet leader Krushchev — ever active in the global battle over hearts and minds — had said “we will bury you” to western diplomats in 1956. Now two years later he was insisting on the removal of western-allied troops from Berlin, behind the Iron Curtain. The possibility of a nuclear showdown between the superpowers heightened tensions and put a sharp spotlight on who might be elected the next American president.

Running for the presidency in 1960, Kennedy, now a Democratic Senator from Massachusetts, had to fight an uphill battle. He would be the youngest president ever elected to office, at 43, and the nation’s first Catholic chief executive. And Nixon, the rival Republican nominee, had served two terms as Vice President.

But Kennedy harnessed his compelling personal narrative — replete with war stories of saving sailors’ lives and securing rescue off a Pacific island — to craft a set of political themes to inspire a generation: youthful idealism, democracy in action, civic engagement, scientific and cultural progress, public service, and U.S. leadership of the western democratic alliance. His powerful charisma and telegenic looks as well as his glamorous marriage to Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy helped lift the nation’s aspirations.

Kennedy’s 1955 book “Profiles in Courage” had not only garnered a Pulitzer Prize but helped reframe senatorial politics as a place of civic heroism. After defeating Nixon for the presidency by the slimmest of margins, Kennedy famously invoked the duty of public service as a democratic ideal in his 1961 Inaugural Address: “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”

Though he had his flaws, Kennedy set in motion much of what was best about American idealism in the early 1960s. He established the U.S. Peace Corps in 1961. He called for “landing a man on the moon” by the end of the decade. He gave hope to the citizens of Berlin yearning for freedom. And, he helped set the stage for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, passed into law following his assassination in November 1963.

As president, Kennedy pushed to promote his progressive ideals at home and abroad. “A lifelong supporter and advocate of the arts, President John F. Kennedy frequently steered the public discourse toward what he called “our contribution to the human spirit,” the Center’s website says. He and first lady Mrs. Kennedy initiated a $30 million fundraising campaign for the construction of the “National Cultural Center” in Washington, D.C. in the fall of 1962.

In November, 1963, however, the nation was traumatized by news from Dallas of Kennedy’s assassination. Only two months later, on January 23, 1964, President Johnson signed into law the designation of the National Cultural Center as a living memorial to President John F. Kennedy. “By this Act,” according to the Center’s website, “President Kennedy’s devotion to the advancement of the performing arts in the United States was recognized.” By 1971 the Kennedy Center’s construction was completed based on the modified design of architect Edward Durrell Stone and it opened to the public on Sept. 8 of that year.

The authorized mission of the Kennedy Center is to “present classical and contemporary music, opera, drama, dance, and other performing arts from the United States and other countries; promote and maintain the [Center] as the National Center for the Performing Arts; strive to ensure that the education and outreach programs and policies of the [Center] meet the highest level of excellence and reflect the cultural diversity of the United States…. and provide within the [Center] a suitable memorial in honor of the late President.”

At a cost of $71 million, the massive scale and grandeur of the Kennedy Center complex is difficult to imagine. The horizontality of the main structure belies its multi-level design incorporating three performance venues — an opera house, a concert hall, and a theater — into one monumental building. D.C. Historic Preservation records indicate that the main structure is 10 stories tall with “three levels of parking, a plaza level, box tier, first tier, second tier, attic, terrace and penthouse” and that the Center “measures 630 feet long” and “300 feet wide.”

According to DCist’s Matt Blitz, the Center “is nearly 1.5 million square feet, sprawled across 17 acres of land, housing 10 performance spaces, some 400-plus rooms, and countless crystal chandeliers. At one time, it held one of the largest rooms in the world — the Grand Foyer — which is longer than the Washington Monument is tall… The building itself is built with 3700 tons of Carrara marble, a gift from Italy…”

Etched in marble on the exterior of the Center, a 1962 presidential quotation from Kennedy summons the spirit: “I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty. I am certain that after the dust of centuries has passed over our cities, we, too, will be remembered not for victories or defeats in battle or in politics, but for our contribution to the human spirit.”

In September 2019, the Center added The REACH to the Kennedy Center complex. The acronym “REACH” stands for “renew, experience, activate, create and honor Kennedy’s memory.” The lush new campus addition furnishes an additional 130,000 square feet of green space, with three pavilions that enclose 72,000 square feet of interior program space including classrooms, open studios, rehearsal spaces, galleries, workshop sites, adaptable installations and stage performance settings. Allowing the public a more intimate view of the creative process, glass walls and viewing balconies are prominently featured to connect people and creators more directly. The democratic impulse inspired by Kennedy is meant to live through these open spaces.

In a January 2020 interview with the White House Historical Association, the Kennedy Center’s president Deborah Rutter described how JFK’s ideals helped shape the institution’s ongoing mission. “When president Kennedy took office, he and Mrs. Kennedy were huge advocates…. They were heavily involved with fundraising, thinking about the structure, and appointing citizens to lead that effort.”

“We think often about the role of history as we’re making our plans every day…. Art is what helps shine a light on who we are as individuals and who we are as a collective. And, for John F. Kennedy, that was so important. We really harken back to the words he uttered so frequently about the positive role of art, artists, language, and culture and that really is our inspiration every day,” Rutter said.

Kennedy’s legacy helped inspire the naming of The REACH in more ways than patrons might imagine. “If you think about who [JFK] was as an individual, how he really pushed himself to do more than he naturally could, how he actually often pushed himself to extremes, you see that throughout his life story as a young person, as a naval [officer], as a member of the Senate and then to become president, and the aspirations he had for the country. Those were things that reached beyond the limits of who he thought he was. So as we were thinking of reaching out past our southern wall, we knew it would be a great place to think and remember him by calling it The REACH,” Rutter recalled.

Serving as a living memorial to Kennedy is a much more dynamic process than simply coining honorific names or putting commemorative JFK busts on display, Rutter observed. “Being a living memorial is a little bit of an interesting challenge because you want to tell the story of John F. Kennedy…. As we think about his words and his intent we really think about what he stood for. And when we celebrated the centennial of his birth in 2017, we really focused that celebration around ideals we attribute to him: courage, justice, freedom, service, and, at the request of the family, gratitude…. So those are very much eternal ideas, ones that really all Americans can agree on. And in fact they are very central to the performing arts.”

For the Kennedy Center’s 50th anniversary, Rutter’s goal has been clear. She wants the institution to “really remind the rest of our country that they committed to having a national cultural center. And that the leaders of this country believed in it and the fallen president — John F. Kennedy — was such an advocate for it. And why? Because it made his life richer. He understood that the arts can make all of our lives richer. When you think of his words and how he inspires others to imagine that if there were more politicians who are poets and poets who are politicians the world might be a better place…. That is what is really inspiring to me now.”

Providing free live arts performances for the public every evening on the Millennium Stage (reduced temporarily to 3 days-a-week now due to the pandemic) serves as one of the most potent examples of the Kennedy legacy. “Now that was a pretty bold idea,” Rutter said of the concept of holding a free show every single day at 6:00 o’clock.” Before the pandemic hit, she said, the Kennedy Center fulfilled its commitment to provide free shows to the public “every single day since March of 1997.” And every single Millennium Stage performance is live-streamed on Facebook, recorded, archived and made available for free to the public.

In addition to its free performances, the Kennedy Center also spearheads one of the most influential arts education networks in the world. “We have more than 40 programs,” Rutter said. “We serve more than 43 states. My goal is to get to 50 plus the District and Puerto Rico, etc. And we actually do it through teacher training, through programs, through advocacy with schools and with communities… I think it’s really important to remember that [the Kennedy Center] is not just someplace to ‘go see a show,’ but that you should live your life with art in it every day.”

But it’s not just free educational programming and live performances that help the Kennedy Center honor JFK’s legacy. Celebrating the full panoply of American arts and culture — in all of its diverse varieties — is also central to that mission. As is challenging the cultural elitism many associate with the Center’s origins.

The Georgetowner spoke with the Kennedy Center’s Senior Vice President for Artistic Planning, Robert Van Leer, about how JFK’s democratic ideals are being addressed during this anniversary year.

“Well, you know, right from its opening in 1971, almost 50 years ago to the day… [The Kennedy Center] was established as America’s cultural center. And, it’s quite clear it was intended to be a place for the celebration, development, and learning all about American culture in a global context…. And we’ve developed on that for many, many years with the Millennium Stage broadcasts, with the presentation from work from across the country, the addition of other art forms, the addition of jazz and the addition of hip-hop…. We can’t do everything all the time but we work to represent the existing, changing, developing and growing culture of America both locally and nationally.” Van Leer said.

The Kennedy Center’s 50th anniversary year is “very much a tribute to Kennedy’s ideals,” Van Leer said. “And increasingly, as time passes, it is those ideals which have become our beacon for our mission and vision.”

Adding The REACH to the Kennedy Center has helped transition the institution from its more traditional emphasis on culturally elite art forms toward a more democratic and grass roots approach. Van Leer appreciates “the very idea of having a bricks and mortar — though none of it is actually bricks and mortar [laughs] — space for community, for learning, for incubation, for participation, for expansion of the human mind and spirit in a way that the original 1971 building struggles to accommodate.”

In addition to constructing The REACH’s spaces to “bring performances out into the light,” the Center has also bolstered its mission to enhance “social impact,” Van Leer said. A new department has been created that will be “looking at issues of social equity, social justice, and all of those issues which really need to be part of any cultural conversation.”

The Kennedy Center is now looking to reach all audiences across the broad American spectrum. “I never think of the audience as a block. There are communities who know us for jazz or for hip-hop or for classical music or for opera or for ballet or for contemporary dance…. We really try to work toward a broad spectrum of music and performing arts…. Our art is one of inclusion and representation. It’s an evolving, living cultural center which responds to what people want. We just recently had a real celebration of Go-go out on the Millennium Stage which is a reflection of culture in D.C. and its history and its roots, so it’s a broad field.”

And, speaking of roots… Van Leer is also excited to see the thriving work of the Kennedy Center’s Hip-Hop Culture Council, directed by Simone Eccleston. “She’s been working hard…. And seeing real results. The Roots will be coming in as artists in residence… and we’ve been working in the center in education, in jazz, and in other forms. So, we’re really excited about that in the coming season.”

Van Leer is enthusiastic about the Kennedy Center’s raft of fresh programming to commemorate the 50th anniversary. “We have some wonderful exhibits coming up… one called “If These Walls Could Talk” opening up this September and then we’re looking forward to refreshing our JFK exhibits… and a new statue of Kennedy himself coming up in November.” Next year, the new bronze statue of John F. Kennedy will be unveiled on the grounds of The REACH.

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